The Limit of Speed

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“The limit of speed, which the unaided human body, propelled by its own energy, can attain, has, obviously, very nearly, if not completely, been realized. The human body is at best but an awkward machine for producing speed.” Arthur Ruhl, sport journalist 1905


At the first Modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, Thomas Burke won the 100m in a time of 12 seconds. This then improved hugely in the next decade as Knut Lindberg ran a world record of 10.6 seconds in 1906; we were getting quicker at a rapid rate.  Interesting milestones that followed through the twentieth century included Jesse Owens’ 10.2 clocking in 1936, Jim Hines’ 9.95 (becoming the first man to break the ten second barrier), and Ben Johnson’s drug-induced 9.79 at the Seoul Olympics.  The progression then slowed down considerably as twenty years later Bolt posted an astounding 9.69seconds in Beijing to stun the world, which was actually only a tenth quicker than what Johnson had done in the Eighties.  This raises the question then of whether the modern man will continue to get faster, or instead, much like in the case of racehorses, begin to plateau as we reach the limit of human speed.

 Mexico 1968 - Jim Hines

Who’s getting faster?


Usain Bolt holds the 100m world-record today in 9.58seconds and the first two past the post in the London Olympic Men’s 100m were Jamaican. Likewise, all three medalists in the Men’s 200m this year were Jamaican. This poses the much-debated question of how this small nation continues to produce world-class sprinters; with a population of less than three million, compared to London’s population of over eight million, why is it that Jamaicans seem to be getting faster?

Locals seem to put it down to a West Indian diet, an upbringing with Track & Field as the national sport, or simply a gift from God.  Dr. Rachel Irving (University of West Indies) instead suggests it was to do with Jamaican ancestry and the importation of Africans during the Slave Economy in the late seventeenth century.  Irving proposes that high levels of serotonin increased a determined and aggressive nature, making one more suited to an event such as the 100m, which consists of fast, explosive movement. Furthermore, a homogenous gene pool indicates there could be many potential Bolts and Powells to come, thus maybe as the rest of the world experience a limit to human speed, Jamaicans will continue to get faster.


Are we faster than we were?


Contrary to recent speculation suggesting the Neanderthal was faster than the modern man due to speed being a necessity in every day life, I would like to suggest that we are faster than our ancestors due to anatomical differences.  Neanderthals had shorter limbs than modern humans, averaging at a height of 5.ft4 (164cm), thus requiring up to a third more energy than us for running or walking and some scientists believe this was the primary reason for their inability to survive.  Fossils show that the Neanderthal was not just shorter and stockier but also unable to absorb shock like humans can, and so they were less suited to running fast.  

To compare the modern sprinter to a Greek Olympian has proven a difficult task because at the Ancient Olympics, dating as far back as 776BC, there were no accurate sprint records.  The Greeks would run the ‘Stadion’, which required the athlete to sprint to a wooden post and back to a starting point, covering the length of one ‘Stade’.  Similarities arise in the use of ‘starting sills’ made of stone and the fact that runners were beaten for a false start violation, rather harsher than today’s disqualification rule.  And even though there is no certainty on how fast the Ancient Greeks were, it is safe to say that we are running faster merely due to the physical prowess of the modern sprinter.


To compare us then, to the fastest of animals, we are fighting a losing battle.  The cheetah is the fastest of land animals and can travel at speeds up to 104km/h, accelerating from 0-100km/h in five seconds.  To put this in sprinting terms, if Bolt was to genuinely race a cheetah, he would probably only get half way down the track by the time his feline competitor had finished.  An eleven-year-old cheetah named Sarah ran 100m in 5.95seconds at a zoo in Ohio, suggesting that we do not stand a chance in a race of speed. Unlike cheetahs, we are not built to spend much time in the air and have evolved to keep only two feet on the floor, thus maybe we have reached a limit to how fast we can go.


I believe that we have more or less reached the limit of human speed. Of course the 100m record will continue to improve by hundredths, or if we begin to measure records more accurately, in thousandths, due to improvements in nutrition and technology and subsequently greater physiques. However, in terms of speed, scientists believe man cannot run faster than 30mph due to our physiological handicaps that will continue to hinder us.  Bolt has reached almost 28mph and whilst sprinting records tend to stagnate for a decade or so before dropping again, the modern man does not need speed in order to survive, so we will not adapt in order to run at greater speeds in the near future.